Bikes stored away until we know not when, we are off to Scotland again, by car this time but with our camping gear. Destination: Isle of Islay with the aim of discovering more delicious peaty whiskies from my favourite whisky region of Islay and then onto the Isle of Skye.
You may have noticed a pattern in places we’ve been to recently. Wild, rugged, remote islands.
This type of country, scenery and energy is my kind of happy place. It makes me feel content, relaxed, energised, humble, peaceful and generally happy. I don’t want for anything. Yes it was cold, a touch uncomfortable (having to constantly crawl yourself back up the tent as you gradually roll or slide down because of uneven ground!) but it is worth it, for me because I love such environments and Anthony says he enjoys it too because he sees how happy I am there. It reminds me of my dream when I was a desperately shy teenager that I wanted to be a shepherd – as much as I love people (but not crowds) and meeting the locals, that yearning for remoteness and solitude seems to have remained with me but I know I am not tough enough to have survived long term in such a harsh environment. Some of our friends know how unsociable we can be when camping – we have to move away until there is no sight of any other humans!! Island or remote country folk are so different to city folk – simple, direct, what you see is what you get. Like Arthur, the ridiculously skilled ferry operator between Islay and Jura who spent 30 years at sea before this job: he was originally a farmer’s hand but after being invited to join his boss on a boat trip, he never looked back, especially after the sea “threw him back 3 times” – which according to legend means he are now safe from the sea as it obviously does not want you (his boat sank once and he fell overboard twice). Have a look at Anthony’s video below:
Going back chronologically, we first visited family near Dumfries, then stopped at the Falkirk Wheel, a rotating boat lift in central Scotland, connecting the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. The wheel raises boats by 24 metres. The Falkirk Wheel is the only rotating boat lift of its kind in the world and uses the Archimedes’ principle relating to the law of physics around mass and its water displacement. It was absolutely fascinating to watch.
Not far from the Falkirk Wheel are the 30 metre steel horse-head sculptures, depicting shape-shifting water spirits. We saw them again from the nearby motorway rising magically put of the hills.
We finally make it to Islay via 2 ferries, the tiny Corran-Ardgour crossing which was just about to leave as we arrived and then a morning ferry from Mallaig-Armadale ferry. Lucky I booked a bed and breakfast for our first two nights as it rained a lot, again. Kentraw B&B was fabulous. I don’t drink beer, or soft drinks and few wines but I do enjoy a good whisky occasionally and especially the smoky peaty ones – being the Islay whisky ‘kernosser’, Anthony very kindly offered to be the designated driver while we were on Islay.
There are 8 working distilleries on Islay and after many sips of many different whiskies from all the distilleries, I can’t say that I have gone from being a “kernosser” to a connaisseur but I have learned a lot – about the making, and more importantly about what I prefer, such as peated over non-peated and double maturation with sherry cask over Bourbon only cask and I now know what I don’t enjoy such as cask strength which is typically 57% ABV – that’s way too strong for me. I also learned that the Laphroaig I don’t enjoy is the 10 year old one. This might be a shock to hear, but it was hard work going through all those tastings; there is only so much one can taste over a few days!! I left so much of most 20ml drams! But I did finish some too!! I am so glad to have finally made it to Islay but I have to admit to a couple of disappointments. Firstly, Caol Isla, one of my 2 my favourite distilleries, was closed to visitors due to renovations although I was able to sample a couple of different Caol Islas at Lagavullin, my other favourite. What was a surprise and very disappointing was finding out that most distilleries are owned by large companies, the barley comes from the mainland and is then malted on Islay by a malting house supplying to most distilleries on the island so the finished product has had a limited life on Islay. The larger distilleries store their whiskies on the mainland now so for example, in 4 years’ time, all 16 year old Lagavullin will be stored off Islay. When is success too much? The only whiskies that are not available outside the distillery are some of the “Distiller’s Edition” which are basically a mixture which varies from year to year and have no ‘age’ – very crudely, it’s a mixture of a bit of this and a bit of that and hey presto you have this year’s edition. It makes the possibilities endless – no wonder Laphroaig has 28 types! I didn’t know that some blends are made purely for the duty free market so understanding the process and your preference helps if you’re going to look for a new duty free opportunity.
For my whisky drinking friends, in addition to Caol Isla and Lagavullin, my next favourites are Kilchoman’s Loch Gorm, Bunnahabhain’s 12 year old unpeated (yes, unpeated) and Laphroaig’s 15 year old.
We visited the Islay Woollen Mill, first established on Islay in 1883, one that has supplied tweed to the british royals for years and to many movies such as Braveheart. We spent some time with the current owner’s son – there some sadness when he spoke and told us that the younger generation was not interested in learning tweed making skills. It is such hard work as the 115 year old machinery requires constant repairs.
Islay had a lot more tourists than we expected, some fabulous restaurants such as at Ardberg distillery and we did find some remote spots for some envigorating walks. Yes, it was cold and we were very glad we made the decision not to ride and camp!
After Islay, we headed to Skye – another island full of raw beauty.
We found a couple of magnificient spots to pitch our tent. For me, our trip to Scotland was complete just from those locations – pure bliss. Well nearly, as it was cold despite all our layers and the ground either slopped sideways one night or downhill the next. The idea of travelling by campervan of some sort is growing increasingly attractive… don’t tell Streak and Storm though!
We got to the magnificient Quiraing when there just 4 other cars in the car park.
IT was just as stunning 3 hours later – just glad we didn’t do a longer walk.
Heading back to Kent, we took a slight detour from Skye via Applecross, Fearnmore, Torridon , Boat of Garten and The Holy Isle of Lindisfarne (anywhere is on the way to where you’re going, right?!) before seeing nephews and nieces we hadn’t seen for 3 years and discovering their lovely town of Ripon. We drove through absolutely stunning countryside.
And now, we have done full circle, from the Faroes, to Iceland, Iona, Skye, and finally to Lindisfarne, the sacred heart of the Northumberland kingdom. Each island suffered horrific raids at the hands of the invading vikings often ransacking monasteries and slaughtering monks. Historians have traditionally considered the Viking Age to have begun in 793, the year of the first major recorded Viking raid, which targeted a monastery in Lindisfarne: maybe we should have done this 3 month trip in reverse? The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded circa 634 by Irish monk St Aidan, who had been sent from Iona off the west coast of Scotland to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald. The first recorded Viking attack on Skye took place in 794 with 875 seeing the arrival of Norwegian settlers on Skye; by 907 intermarriage had made the islanders a Celtic-Norwegian mix. The degree of independence which the Western Isles enjoyed as a sub-state in the Norwegian empire had created an independently minded people who would not be easily dominated by the Scottish crown – a character trait still very much noticeable today and one I particularly enjoyed in all the places we have visited on this trip.
Piecing together the history of each place, discovering how such remote and wild places survive today, enjoying the open and direct nature of people there has been eye opening and an absolute treat. Not only have I learned lots, I also understand tweed colours and can confirm that we do not like cold but I still love camping – just in a little more comfort though – being able to make a hot cup of tea while sitting in the car sheltered from the pouring rain was such luxury!
Our two weeks in Scotland flew by. Back in Kent for a short while before heading to the south of France. À bientôt!
– AnnePS: This is our 365th blog post